Wyndham Lewis: Life, Art, War

lewis iwm

The Wyndham Lewis exhibition at the Imperial War Museum North, in Salford, is very good indeed. It is the first I have seen that lays out the whole of Lewis’s career as a visual artist, from art student to Vorticist to war artist to satirist to portraitist to fantasist to blindness. I learned a lot from it, and came to understand this strange and difficult man a little better.The exhibition starts with Augustus John’s portraits of the young Lewis, looking determinedly bohemian and a bit of a spoilt kid. The drawings from the art school years show him going his own way, and snootily scornful of the teaching of Henry Tonks. (A thought strikes me. The IWM should mount a Tonks exhibition; his deeply sympathetic portraits of the facially wounded are surely the most powerful examples of British war art.)

Then we get the influence of the cubists, and of the Futurists. To his great credit, Lewis never went completely along with Marinetti. He sensed that the Futurist worship of speed and machinery would lead to bad things, and (unlike Nevinson) never produced pictures that wallowed in violence. The art historians love Vorticism because it was the only proper British manifesto-led avant-garde art movement.


As a painter, I think Lewis did better work later; ‘The Crowd’ above, for example, seems more interesting as an exposition of a theory than as a visual experience. But the movement must have been gloriously exciting at the time. Something of that excitement is caught in William Roberts’s 1961 painting, in which he remembered the Vorticists launching Blast at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant. Roberts is the clean-shaven young man between bearded Pound and moustached Lewis.

roberts eiffel tower

Because it’s curated by an art historian, the exhibition gives us plenty about the Omega Workshop (about which I for one feel I have heard  enough, really) and doesn’t tell us about the decorations that he designed for Madame Strindberg and the infamous cabaret, the Cave of the Golden Calf.  But I think the visual relics of this infamous place are few, so perhaps there is not much that could be shown in an exhibition.

Projections of some of Lewis’s Blasts and Blesses indicate his belligerent style, and hint at his tendency to self-parody. (On the subject of which, I’d like to know more about the Picture Ball, for which J.C. Squire and Eddie Marsh, anti-modernists both, persuaded Lewis to design parody-futurist costumes for them to wear in a tableau vivant making fun of the movement as an example of contemporary lunacy.  I tried to research a paper on this once, but could not find enough material. Maybe I’ll try again.)

The talking heads in the rather good video at the end of the exhibition seem to agree that the war changed Lewis. I’m not so sure. He’d written Tarr and ‘Cantelman’s Spring Mate’ before he got near a battlefield. Like many of the personalities who fought, I’d say that Lewis was not changed by his war experience in the sense of going in a different direction, but that the effect was to intensify his already existing personality, to make him more intransigent, argumentative and independent. And more disturbed.

The exhibition only shows one of his paintings of the Tyros, the extraordinary caricature figures who seem to have obsessed Lewis in the years after the War. I’d like to have seen more.

Artistically the most satisfying stretch of the exhibition is that devoted to the portraits of the late twenties and thirties. Most of these (maybe all) were in the Lewis Portraits exhibition at the National Gallery in 2009, and it’s good to see them again. Best of all is the  T. S. Eliot portrait, notoriously rejected by the Royal Academy in 1938.

lewis eliot

Next to the portrait in the exhibition is a little screen showing a Movietone news clip about the fuss. A beaming Lewis is interviewed, claiming that his work is not unorthodox, even if it does not conform to the ‘silly’ conventions of the Academy. Lewis was genuinely hurt by this rejection, but from  the film you can see that he is thoroughly enjoying the skirmish. It is the only time in the exhibition when we get a chance to hear Lewis’s clipped, upper-class and rather military voice. I could have done with more – maybe snippets from the rather good  CD, The Enemy Speaks. I’ve been listening to that this week while I do the cooking, instead of my usual musical dose of Ella Fitzgerald or Barb Jungr. I particularly like his talk, ‘When John Bull Laughs’, on the British and humour.

There are later coloured canvases, of historical scenes, fantasies and infernos, which I had not seen before.  They are serious work, and he clearly put a lot into them, but I’m not sure that I understand them fully.

The exhibition ends with his last painting, of a fairly hellish Canadian armaments factory in the Second World War,  unfinished because his sight was going. Opposite is Michael Ayrton’s superb portrait of the aged Lewis, with his plastic eyeshield.

ayrton lewis

It’s taken me a while to appreciate Lewis. Back in 2008 I read Paul O’Keefe’s very readable biography of Lewis and reacted against it rather strongly, describing him as:

unpleasant, conniving, domineering, argumentative, sponging, unreliable, contemptuous, dishonest, philandering, prejudiced, self-pitying, proto-fascist, pretentious, manipulative, deceiving and just plain nasty.

Yup. True enough. He was not a nice man. But at that time I had read little of Lewis’s writing, and what little I had read alienated me. Now I realise that alienation is what it’s all about. Lewis cast himself as ‘The Enemy’, the permanently belligerent outsider looking with scorn and murderous objectivity at current society. His satire is unrelenting, ferocious, and in small doses very funny.

In larger doses it can seem repetitive and  overdone. A chapter at a time is the way to read The Apes of God. Yesterday I read the ‘Lesbian-Ape’ chapter, in which the hapless Dan knocks at the door of the wrong artist’s studio, is brusquely invited in by a mannish painter, who commands him to strip and pose naked for her, while she comments scathingly on his masculinity. It’s funny, though somewhat disturbing and off-putting.

The video at the end of the exhibition is a collage of experts talking about Lewis. the ones I took to most were Nathan Waddell and Paul Edwards, who seemed the ones most alive to the fact that what matters most about Lewis is his huge  and dangerous sense of humour.

The exhibition continues until December.


  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted August 4, 2017 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, as ever, George, for a very interesting read.

    As for Lewis, I’m not so sure, now, about the version of him I began to devise when I was seventeen. I bought the Penguin edition of The Apes of God when it came out in 1965, and devoured it without understanding it at all, except to notice that it was full of disgust at people who sounded like the Sitwells:

    I knew Lawrence didn’t like Lewis and Leavis didn’t like Lewis but I didn’t really care.

    I took note of Leavis’s disdain, but I liked the Blasting-and-Bombardiering stuff and the angry energies of One-Way Song:

    Here’s a scrap of verse:

    ‘…I’m not the man that lifts the broad black hat.
    I’m not the man’s a preux, clichéed for chat.
    I’m not the man that’s sensitive to sex.
    I’m not the fair Novello of the Waacs.
    I’m not at breaking wind behind a hand
    Too good. I’m not when hot the man that fanned
    His cheek with a mouchoir. I’m not that kind.
    I’m not a sot, but water leaves me blind,
    I’m not too careful with a drop of Scotch,
    I’m not particular about a blotch.
    I’m not alert to spy out a blackhead,
    I’m not the man that minds a dirty bed.
    I’m not the man to ban a friend because
    He breasts the brine in lousy bathing-drawers.
    I’m not the guy to balk at a low smell,
    I’m not the man to insist on asphodel.
    This sounds like a He-fellow don’t you think?
    It sounds like that. I belch, I bawl, I drink….

    …The man I am to blow the bloody gaff
    If I were given platforms? The riff-raff
    May be handed all the trumpets that you will.
    Not so the golden-tongued. The window-sill
    Is all the pulpit they can hope to get,
    Of a slum-garret, sung by Mistinguette,
    Too high up to be heard, too poor to attract
    Anyone to their so-called ” scurrilous” tract.
    What wind an honest mind advances? Look
    No wind of sickle and hammer, of bell and book,
    No wind of any party, or blowing out
    Of any mountain hemming us about
    Of ” High Finance”, or the foothills of same.
    The man I am who does not play the game!
    Of those incalculable ones I am
    Not to be trusted with free-speech to damn,
    To be given enough rope — just enough to hang.
    To be hobbled in a dry field. As the bird sang
    Who punctured poor Cock Robin, by some sparrow
    Condemned to be shot at with toy bow and arrow.
    You will see how it stands with all of those
    Who strong propensities for truth disclose.
    It’s no use buddy — you are for it boy
    If not from head to foot a pure alloy!
    If so the man you are that lets the cat
    Out of the bag, you’re a marked fellow and that’s flat….’

    And the disrespectful lines on Eliot:

    ‘…You now solicit a few Enemy thrusts
    At the stock poets’ thickly bay-leaved busts.
    Ranged in that portrait-place, of marble and clay,
    August with the as-yet unwithered bay.
    I seem to note a roman profile bland,
    I hear the drone from out the cactus-land:
    That must be the poet of the Hollow Men:
    The lips seem bursting with a deep Amen…’

  2. Posted August 5, 2017 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this, Tom.
    ‘The man I am to blow the bloody gaff.’ – that just about sums up Lewis.

    He reads parts of ‘One-Way Song’ on the ‘Enemy Speaks’ CD. He rattles through it at machine-gun speed. Born a few decades later he’d have been a pretty good rapper.

    Re: Leavis’s disdain. Leavis’s comments on Lewis are quite perceptive:

    Mr. Lewis stands, in a paradoxically high-pitched and excited way, for common sense ; he offers us, at the common sense level, perceptions of an uncommon intensity, and he is capable of making ‘ brilliant’ connexions.

    Those scare quotes round ‘brilliant’ show Leavis’s limitations, though. ‘Brilliant’ is scornful shorthand for clever in an undirected, irresponsible sort of way. (The context is a contrast with Lawrence.) Lewis doesn’t indulge in the ‘high seriousness’ that Lawrence and Eliot and Leavis himself thought it important to display, often to the detriment of their work. Lewis punctures high seriousness rudely and often nastily.
    And there’s a contradiction between the accusation of ‘brilliance’ and the limiting connection of Lewis to ‘common sense’. Lewis often posed as a plain man making common-sense observations, as many satirists do, but he wasn’t commonsensical at all, in the sense of being limited by usual assumptions.
    Leavis continues:

    His remarkable satiric gift is frustrated by an unrestrained egotism, and Mr. Eliot might have placed him along with Mr. Pound among those whose Hells are for other people: no one could with less injustice be said to be destitute of humility.

    Once again, true enough. But to what extent is humility a good quality in a writer, especially a satirist? Lewis’s outsider stance (‘The Enemy’) needs a healthy dose of egotism to sustain it. And while his egotism led him down strange paths, he was at least more able than Pound to see where he had gone wrong, and to change his mind, for example on Hitler.

    And, the important point, he’s fun to read. I don’t think that quality counted for much with Leavis.

  3. Posted April 25, 2019 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Dear George (if I may)
    I am still working on my biography of Sir John squire. I was intrigued by your remarks about the Picture Ball. I have found no reference to it apart from yours and would love to know where you found this.
    All good wishes,
    John S

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